Stolen Heritage

© Catherine Lee

Winner, 2021 Silver Quill Poetry Competition, WA State Championships, Toodyay, WA.

On the streets of Marboo there’s a didgeridoo that’s producing a sorrowful tune;
with each echoing part speaking straight to the heart, there is no-one who stands there immune.
So I pause on the track, but then turn to walk back, for the mystical music enthrals—
like a magnet attracts as it soars and retracts and becomes like a siren that calls.

It’s a wizened old man playing hard as he can while the moisture makes trails down his cheeks,
and the resonant wail reveals such a sad tale as the instrument wordlessly speaks.
I am drawn by this dirge and like others converge on the source of its ghostly refrain,
for he’s been there for years and the numerous tears he has shed expose deep-seated pain.

He is one who was lost, and he still counts the cost of a family long gone away—
how his poor mother cried as, removed from her side he was stolen one terrible day;
and he cannot forget that unspeakable debt as he thinks of how life was before,
with a faint memory of his grandfather’s knee where he’d listened to wisdom and lore.

Now the drawings on walls he just dimly recalls as reminders of hope exorcised—
when the bush tucker fare was delicious and rare, and the Dreaming respected and prized;
when the core of each man in a warrior clan was intrepid and skilful and true—
and his grief comes in waves as he pointlessly craves for that magical time he once knew.

You can see as he blows the emotion he shows as he weeps for those wide-open plains,
where the spinifex rolls and the buffalo strolls and the silence and majesty reigns,
where the land’s beating heart is a permanent part of the emptiness deep in his soul—
yet its numinous force steers his spirit on course, where tradition continues to roll.

I can sense how he dreams while the boy inside screams at the world he was forced to embrace,
see the lines and the scars of some time behind bars charted out on his wrinkled old face—
feel how heritage dwells in the music that swells, ancient stories sigh soft in his ear
of the centuries past, which he knows will outlast the reality forced on him here.

Now the didge becomes still, and its player looks ill as he mutters his woes to the earth,
while some tourists despise in the depths of their eyes as they give him a very wide berth;
for he’s been to the brink, become slave to the drink, and the sight is not pretty he knows,
so he wryly resumes and the rhythm consumes once again as it rises and flows.

When the eerie sound dies, heaving numerous sighs he then picks up his ancient glass jar,
shakes the coins in his hands, tips his hat as he stands and then staggers to Rafferty’s Bar,
where he orders a gin and with cynical grin empties tumbler of translucent fire—
for the life which he yearns the mere pittance he earns cannot pay for his deepest desire.

He will die in Marboo and his didgeridoo will be silenced and placed on display;
with the name of his tribe they will also inscribe how this ‘odd little man went astray’.
Then his tale will be told and his photograph sold and an infamous status he’ll gain—
but it cannot make known the whole story that’s shown in his poignant rendition of pain.

So the image for me will be clear memory of the suffering deep in his eyes—
how the sadness defined and took over his mind due to joy he could not realise.
I at last understand how the loss of his land and his legacy down through the years
has reduced him to this, though he mourns for that bliss and continues to play through his tears.

On the streets of Marboo as the didgeridoo sweeps me up and its passion incites,
I do not see a drunk in a haze and a funk, but a child who was robbed of his rights.
So I pray when his soul from its bitter black hole is released, it will finally roam
with his ancestors there in the wide-open air of his sacred, unparalleled home.

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